Thursday, October 22, 2009

My first week on the other side of the classroom

So I'm almost done with my first real week of teaching classes, and it has already been quite a ride. I've had experience in the past doing some private tutoring and teaching things like swim lessons and surf lessons, but I've never actually led a classroom full of very animated 17-18 year olds (who, by the way, don't look much younger than me...). I showed up to my school, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, 3 weeks ago for my first day of work, and my only preparation and training for teaching has basically taken place during that period. So let me start from the beginning.

First, my school. I work at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which is a 3-year diploma program for the 2nd-tier Singaporean students. In a nutshell, the Singaporean education system works as follows: all students go through primary school and then take the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) at the age of 12. This exam virtually determines their entire life future, as their results from their test place them into one of three tracks, and it is nearly impossible to break out of a track once placed into it. The best students go on to secondary school, take their "O levels" (kind of like an SAT for mid-high school), then JC (junior college) for 2 years, then take their "A levels" (like an SAT only much more significant), and then the lucky few may go on to study at university. The middle-of-the-road students go on to lesser secondary schools and then enter the polytechnic system. They study at the polytechnics for 3 years, and historically this was the end of their education, although in recent years more polytechnic students have gone on to enter university and a few have even pursued graduate education. However, these students have already been selected by a national exam to be in the "average" education system, and have been told for much of their life that they are just that. These are my students.

For the three weeks leading up to my first class this past Monday, I have basically been trying to learn how to be a teacher (most people go to school for years to do this). I learned on the first day that I was leading a module on Cell and Molecular Biology, which basically means that I have FULL control over every aspect of my class - from giving lectures, leading tutorials (=precepts for the Princeton people), leading practicals (=labs), setting quizzes and exams, designing projects, organizing the syllabus, marking (=grading) everything, and basically any other random administrative task that goes into leading a class. In addition, I found out I would be leading one practical each week for a microbiology class, something that I have virtually no background in. Needless to say, I was a little bit nervous going into this week, especially since the extent of our professional teacher training given to us by Ngee Ann was a single 8 hour session from which I don't really remember anything.

Then started this week. My first class was a practical for my CMB (Singapore loves TLAs or three-letter-acronyms if you haven't noticed), which was almost a disaster. I had planned a 20 minute introductory presentation on powerpoint for my students, and of course when I went to plug my computer into the projector I didn't have the correct driver installed on my computer. So I then fumbled through what I could memorize from the presentation. After, I moved on to explaining the lab equipment, most of which I had forgotten how to use, but didn't know I had forgotten until I tried explaining it to the students and then realized my ill preparation. Luckily, though, I have a FANTASTIC class of students, and they all were extremely excited to meet someone from America and were super friendly/giggly the whole time I was talking with them. So even though I kind of bumbled through my first class, to have them shyly ask me how old I was or if I liked to play counterstrike or if I was on facebook or what I was doing in Singapore made it all worth it. And, when I let them know that I was from Princeton and going to medical school next year, they all let out a collective "oooohhhh." Needless to say, certain aspects of this job are going to be a real ego-trip.

The rest of my classes this week went a lot smoother. I repeated the same lab with other students later in the week, and it is so much easier to lead a class when you actually know what you're doing! I've also given 2 lectures at this point, which have been an amazing experience. You really can't recreate the experience of talking to a group of students about a subject that you're passionate about, and noticing at one point when you're discussing something really interesting that the entire class gets absolutely silent and entranced on every word you say. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. Today, for example, after class one of my students came up to me to ask a pretty good question about the mechanics of viral infections in cells. I started drawing an example for him on the white board, and when I turned around, there were no less than 12 students surrounding me focused on every word I was saying. It was an amazing moment.

I'm really excited for the rest of this year, as I should really get to know my students well since my main class is only 21 students and I see them 3 times a week. I don't think that they've ever had an American teach them before, and it's going to be a blast to be able to share with them my culture while I learn about theirs.

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